For a team that developed Apple's iPad Game of the Year, was nominated for a BAFTA, and has made some of the best received iOS adaptations of console games, IronMonkey Studios doesn't often enter the public conversation.
The Melbourne, Australia-based studio's list of iOS games include Mirror's Edge, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Dead Space, and most recently, Mass Effect: Infiltrator, which was released to coincide with Mass Effect 3 on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Initially a work-for-hire studio, IronMonkey has always made games for Electronic Arts, and was purchased by the publisher in 2010. EA and BioWare sought out the studio to create Mass Effect: Infiltrator after its success with Dead Space.
Having a close working relationship with Mass Effect creator BioWare was key to expanding the PC and console franchise to the mobile space. "We worked really closely [with BioWare], especially at the beginning and the end," Jarrad Trudgen, design director at IronMonkey, told Gamasutra.
But a certain amount of freedom let IronMonkey make its own unique game. "Once we nailed down who our character was, the setting, and the basic beats we had to hit in the story -- our three acts -- [BioWare] left us to it for quite a while. We'd check in every now and again, but from there we developed the script, we cast all the actors, and we did the voice-over recording here in Melbourne."
Given the events of Mass Effect: Infiltrator run parallel with those of Mass Effect 3, IronMonkey had to ensure its game fit in with BioWare's canon. "They've got such a huge, well realized universe that there's a lot of stuff to consider about how we fit in with continuity and such," Trudgen said.
He added, "So there's a lot of close work there … We didn't just get a big dump of everything, though. Because everything is so vast, it was more that as things came up we got clarification from [BioWare]. They were always really supportive and helpful."
Mass Effect: Infiltrator is based on the same lauded engine that IronMonkey developed for Dead Space on iOS, whose control scheme was surprisingly well-accepted given its emulation of console third-person controls on a touch-based device.
"You're starting to see less of it now, but I've never understood why, when you've got that whole screen there, people [put] a little round circle in the corner. Just let them use the screen, it's what it's for," said Trudgen.
The control scheme does assume that players are familiar with the dual-analog setup of a console controller. "With Dead Space, some people would struggle a bit, which bothered me because I want everyone who's interested to be able to play it. It's terrible when they do want to play but they try and get frustrated," he said. "I wanted to broaden that a bit with Mass Effect, so we put some things in … so you're not having to fight the controls so much."
Some of these more user-friendly design elements include a targeting system that lets players tap to "soft lock" so that they can tweak it to get a more accurate hit. "You get this kind of rhythm of tap, tweak, move, cover down. It has some similarities to the Red Dead Redemption Dead Eye system, because we kick off some slow-mo as well to give you an opportunity to chain attacks."
One major gameplay element of the Mass Effect universe that's absent in Infiltrator is conversations. The choice to keep dialogue decisions out of the iOS game was made very early and in consultation with BioWare. Time of development and what format would best suit the platform were the major points that led to the decision.
"I guess, the main concern was that a lot of people want to play games on the iPhone or iPad for 5- or 10-minute blocks," said Trudgen. "Some people will sit down for longer than that and go through, but we felt that the whole dialogue mechanic more catered to people who think 'I'm sitting down on the couch and will be here for an hour or two.' Infiltrator has that kind of pace to it, where we wanted people to be able to jump in for five minutes and have a satisfying experience."
As such, most of the storytelling in Mass Effect: Infiltrator works similar to Dead Space. "It's more environmental and the action is happening around you," Trudgen said. The bulk of the story is told through radio conversations, leading to a script that was about 10 times longer than what was contained in Dead Space.
Trudgen believes that IronMonkey benefits from being attached to well-known franchises, something the studio tries to capitalize on by launching near, or on the same day as their console counterparts.
"With Dead Space I was hearing a lot, and we saw through user reviews, people saying 'this is awesome, I'll get the console game now.' It was their first exposure to it, so we get to have our own benefit to the console guys too, expanding their audience," said Trudgen.
"That's something we aim to do too. The reason we don't just do ports is that we try to expand the universe, we're always trying to do something new, like have a new character or storyline, so people aren't just getting a rehash of what they played on console."
Having worked on iOS apps since the initial iPhone, IronMonkey Studios is no stranger to adapting to the yearly updates to Apple's devices. Despite generally developing high-end games, they try to support older devices for as long as they can, "but obviously there's a time when it's not tenable anymore, and you end up sacrificing too much from the high-end to support the low end."
"Overall I'm a huge fan of the whole annual hardware release," said Trudgen. "I think it's pretty incredible, if you look at even Mass Effect Galaxy [ed. BioWare's previous iOS game released alongside Mass Effect 2], which was only two or three years ago, you look at that, then at what you can do on the same platform now, and it's such an exponential jump."
IronMonkey recently released an update for Mass Effect: Infiltrator [iTunes link], optimizing the game for the new iPad.